District has to stretch budget to make needed improvements

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AIKEN --- Facing a $5.5 million budget deficit this year, the Aiken County school district isn't likely to build a new school anytime soon. With more school buildings celebrating golden anniversaries, the county school board wants to make sure that what exists will last well into the future.

Last month, the board learned that more than half of the school buildings were 40 to 60 years old and that enrollment at 21 schools exceeds estimated capacity, based on a facilities study by Columbia-based construction company M.B. Kahn.

With less than $14 million available each year for maintenance and repairs, major upgrades soak up a lot of the district's budget. Additions and renovations to Millbrook Elementary this past year cost $5.9 million.

Though board members stressed that they aren't ready to move just yet on a bond referendum to help with costs, they know classroom conditions need to be improved.

Each year, the district updates a five-year facility plan that prioritizes maintenance and long-term goals. According to the facilities study, if the district continued to work with less than $14 million each year, it would take almost 30 years to complete the "to do" list. By then, the newest schools now would be in the same shape as the ones that desperately need work today.

The list below shows what work needs to be done and what the district has already accomplished by stretching the little money it has.

Area 1

In the center of Aiken County, Area 1 boasts the most schools and almost 40 percent of the district's enrollment of more than 23,000.

The area shows great need for more space, evident at Aiken High School, which has about 1,689 students.

In recent years, the high school added an annex and moved classrooms to the old North Aiken Elementary building next door. But space in that 1953 building is sparse, and 22 portables are used daily.

In the next five years, plans call for fresh paint, a new gym floor and a new air and heating system in the annex, but no major construction.

According to the study, the school needs more than $33 million in work, including an expansion, roof replacement and erosion control.

In recent years, the district has upgraded several Area 1 facilities, including Schofield Middle School, built in 1951 and remodeled in 2003. The school looks just like any built this decade.

Area 2

North Augusta schools will continue to flourish as growth in the area continues.

Over the past five years, school enrollment at the seven area schools has increased almost 7 percent. Mossy Creek Elementary, built in 2005, already needs four portables to accommodate 718 pupils. The cafeteria also needs expansion.

Older schools show signs of wear and tear. North Augusta Middle, one of the older buildings in the district, was constructed in 1954. Facility updates on the five-year plan were delayed after construction on the new Byrd Elementary went over budget last year.

An addition would cost an estimated $1.8 million, but it can't come soon enough -- pupils are already in nine portables. M.B. Kahn projections included a $24.6 million rebuilding plan to update most of the school's current systems, but the needs far outweigh the school district's budget.

Area 3

Area 3 bridges many communities together, including Graniteville, Langley, Bath and Clearwater. The area also has the oldest school in the district, Leavelle-McCampbell Middle School, built in 1920.

At the school's front entrance, a grand staircase and wood fixtures take visitors back to the time when mills were booming and the town was growing. The building has many stories to tell, not just of education, but of how life has changed in the area.

The town no longer is a major force in industry, and wear and tear has weakened the pillar of history in the center of Graniteville.

The school, one of the district's few two-story buildings, struggles to meet the needs of the handicapped with an elevator, and the kitchen and cafeteria are far too small to meet the needs of 420 pupils.

The district respected the history of Area 1's Schofield Middle School during remodeling work there, and school board Chairwoman Christine Sanders said she hopes that would be the case at Leavelle-McCampbell.

While Leavelle-McCampbell is still in operation, Byrd Elementary's pupils will move to a new location off Bettis Academy Road. Only the name will stay the same. While the old school offers 1950s nostalgia, the new school will give 600 pupils a safer area to play and attend class -- and have lunch in the same building.

Area 4

Located on the outskirts of Aiken County and part of Saluda County, Area 4 schools vary greatly from those in city limits. Smaller classes mean principals know the names of every pupil and every sibling.

A new elementary and middle school built in the Wagener area offers updated facilities and technology. But Wagener-Salley High School doesn't offer the same updated learning environment.

Built in 1939, the school still has hardwood lockers lining the walls, but they have a coat of child-friendly bright orange paint. Students have enough class space, but technology growth is limited and computer lab space is lacking.

Ridge Spring-Monetta Elementary and Middle School is in a similar situation as the old Wagener-Salley High School. Built in 1952, the elementary/middle school hybrid has started to show its age, with major overhauls on windows, ceilings and electrical service needed. The five-year facility plan includes a $1.7 million renovation and addition for the school, including a new roof.

Area 5

Covering the outer edges of the southern side of Aiken County, Area 5 schools don't face as many critical challenges as those elsewhere. Enrollment isn't at capacity, and major renovations aren't needed on several buildings.

As part of a phase plan on the five-year facility improvement plan, Jackson Middle School will receive the most significant upgrades in the next few years. The original 1955 building was upgraded in 1963 and 1991 for classroom space and administrative offices. The cafeteria and kitchen, however, still need repairs. Almost $4 million in renovations are scheduled next school year.

Reach Julia Sellers at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106, or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com.


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